Why Runners Love the Sport of ‘Ski-Mo’
Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer

Ski uphill to build a strong heart and lungs

Donning skis with climbing skins and skiing uphill, then “ripping” the skins off, shoving them in a pack and skiing back downhill has been a popular sport in Europe for decades.

While exploring snowy terrain with traditional backcountry skis and skins is called “alpine touring” (AT) or randonnée skiing, what’s known as “ski-mo” (which is short for the light-and-fast sport of ski mountaineering) has emerged over the last few years, and it’s become a small but growing trend among runners who live in cold, mountainous regions, both as a form of cross-training and as a way to exert competitive fire during the winter.

Ski-mo gear differs from traditional AT gear in that it’s much lighter, more minimal and built for speed. And ski-mo races are just that—races, where athletes ski uphill, transition their gear, ski downhill (and sometimes up and down multiple times) as fast as possible.

“Ski-mo combines two of my favorite sports,” says pro runner Max King, who grew up skiing in both Oregon and the Lake Tahoe region. “It gives me both endurance and adrenaline.”

Here are some other reasons runners are taking to skis. 

Non-impact

“There’s not much impact,” says ultrarunner Darcy Piceu, a three-time winner of the Hardrock 100. “There’s no pounding involved. You can actually train more hours on skis with less impact on your body.” Piceu explains that the strength and fitness gained on skis transfers to running, and that after a long ski-mo race, she’s not nearly as sore as she is after a long run.

“A big plus is that I can typically log a lot of vertical gain and get very cardiovascularly fit without getting injured,” says mountain runner Anton Krupicka, who typically skis five days a week throughout winter.

The uphill motion of ski-mo is like hiking. Your skis stay on the ground as you move your legs in a motion similar to hiking to advance forward. “If you can run, you can uphill,” King says.

Mental break

“It’s refreshing for the mind,” says Meredith Edwards, a professional ultrarunner and ski mountaineer, who in years past skied all winter while taking a break from running. This season, she’s combining the two.

Edwards explains how changing things up is healthy for any athlete. Her current training plan allows workouts to switch back and forth between skiing and running. “If it snows a lot and I can’t run, the workout translates to skiing,” she says. “It’s nice to have options and not feel confined.”

READ MORE: Essential Traction for Winter Running

Easier than running, in some ways

Other benefits? “If you’re ever not motivated to run when it’s really cold and dumping snow,” Edwards says, “just get on your skis.”

Plus, she adds, a lot of terrain in the mountains is difficult, if not impossible to get to in the winter on foot. “On skis,” says Edwards, “you can get to some really cool places that you couldn’t access otherwise due to conditions.”

When the terrain gets too steep, you have to zig-zag across the slope or hike with your skis on your back, as Meredith Edwards demonstrates in this photo. Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Edwards

Krupicka adds that skis are a tool for moving in a snowy landscape efficiently. “Ski-mo racing and backcountry ski touring are simply the logical winter analogue activities to what I do in the mountains in the summer,” he says. In summer months, Krupicka runs trails and rock climbs, sometimes combining the two in a light and fast method of moving through the mountains.

And while King, Edwards and Piceu all grew up skiing, Krupicka only skied a handful of times in college, starting up again over the last few years while getting into ski-mo. Like Krupicka, more and more runners are learning to ski downhill because they’re drawn to the physical (and mental) benefits of skiing uphill.

Know the Rules

Uphilling at a ski resort takes the navigation and fear of backcountry avalanches out of the equation, a great thing for beginners. Many ski resorts in North America allow uphilling in one way, shape or form, but it’s important to learn the rules for each individual resort. Some allow unlimited and unrestricted uphill access. Some limit uphilling to certain routes, at certain times of the day. Some don’t charge for it at all but require you to sign a waiver, while others require a paid uphill pass. Search your intended resorts’ website for their particular uphill policies, and stick to the rules.

Race hungry?

Ski-mo races pit competitors against each other on courses that combine uphill and down in an adventurous, frenzied, community party sort of way. Some races are short and fast, and others are longer endurance events. Some even take place at night (for which you need a very, very bright headlamp, advises Piceu).

Doing a web search for races in your area should yield local race info. Series exist in most ski regions throughout the country, for instance: New England’s NE Rando Race Series; Colorado and New Mexico’s COSMIC Race Series; and Washington State’s Vertfest at Alpental.

Max King (in the black helmet) is all smiles as he charges to the front of the pack at a ski-mo race. Photo: Jill Rosell Photography

Tips

“Take a downhill ski lesson so you’re more comfortable with that component,” says King, who adds that going uphill is the easy part.

Edwards advises looking for lightweight gear off the bat, like used race skis and equipment.

To learn more about the gear, head over to Skimo Co.

And Krupicka points out that if runners spend a lot of time on skis in the winter in lieu of running, to remember to ease back into running in the spring. “There will be a critical re-adaptation period for your muscles,” he says. “You will have a super conditioned heart and lungs, but your legs and feet will be de-conditioned to the pounding of running.”

Edwards agrees, and actually runs 30 minutes easy most days after skiing to maintain running form.

READ MORE: Snowshoe Running and Racing 101

Enjoy yourself

Whether you plan on racing, or just touring on lightweight ski-mo gear and gaining low-impact fitness all winter, don’t forget to look around and enjoy yourself.

“When the snow’s good,” says Piceu, “getting out on skis allows you the fun factor of making turns on a downhill that running doesn’t.”

And King adds: “I really love the solitude of touring, hitting a great powder day and getting some phenomenal turns in.” Plus, he adds, “It’s been fun taking up a new challenge with ski-mo racing. I can get my ass handed to me and have something new to work on in competition.”

Ski-mo racing entails skinning or running uphill with skis on your back, then skiing down and repeating that process multiple times. Photo: Myke Hermsmeyer
Lisa Jhung
Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Lisa Jhung is the author of "Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running" (Velo Press, 2015). She writes for Runner's World, Men's Journal and Men's Health and was the co-founding editor of Adventure Sports magazine.